French Press: Brewing the Best Coffee with Your Cafetiere
History of the French press (Or skip down for the goods…)
Unfortunately, the actual origin of the French press is a topic of some contention. It is unclear whether two early patents for similar contraptions are sufficiently considered French presses. The earliest form of the French press is rumored to have come from a French provincial who dropped the ball – as is the case in many important innovations. The man added grinds to his boiling water in the humble hopes that they would sink to the bottom and brew a fine cup of coffee. Instead, the entire grind floated at the top, flotsam of a botch-job. Loathing the idea of wasting the precious beans, the man took some cheese-cloth and pressed it into the grinds. This sufficiently pushed them toward the bottom of the pot and the rest is history. More accurately, here is the rest:
The unfortunate cup of coffee prepared, sabotaged, and drunk nonetheless by that Frenchman one painful October day, so the story goes, paved way for the true patent of the first “French” press. Attilio Callimani, of Milanese was the wise guy who figured out how to enclose the pump and filter in a neat and functional pot. He did not name this the “French” press – we did that; the original and current title of the apparatus is the cafetiere. Various Italians made several improvements to the cafetiere design until Bruno Cassol decided to use a metal helix, or spring, inside the mesh to keep it tight against the walls of the pot. This design is still normally in use today.
Probably not. The French press’ history shows its milestone innovations were designed and patented by Italian inventors and tinkerers. But what about our French provincial who inspired it? The story of the Frenchman has no veracity, whatsoever. It is merely a Francophile’s folk tale
Though the press has several aliases -- press pot, coffee press, coffee plunger, Chambord, cafetière or сafetière à piston – I shall refer to it as the French press from this point forward to avoid confusion.
Okay, buddy. Enough with the history lesson…
Preparing coffee with the French press may be one of the tastiest methods. Sure, you have your Chemex now, and your Kyoto iced coffee and siphons; today’s barista counter looks like yesterday’s meth lab. While modern boutique brewing successfully tackles the issue of acidity and flavor, and while there is nothing quite like a perfectly measured and timed pour-over, the creativity and blunder that created the French press in the first place is simply not there. We are now in the age of science, but your coffee should not necessarily evoke the sensation of cramming for a chemistry midterm.
Below are some steps and tips to making a great cup-o-joe with your French press.
Step #1: Bean-Prep
You do not have to buy a French roast to use in a French press. You do not have to buy any particular roast. I have had success with espresso roasts and light roasts, alike! What is crucial to make a smooth coffee, however, is the grind: coarse. Always, and only coarse for your French press. Fine grinds can jam up your press, effectively breaking it over time, and pass through the press’ filter. Without getting into too much technical detail, plunging, or pushing down the press, is meant to push all of your grinds out of your coffee. Thus, if your grinds make it through the filter you will have grinds in your coffee which will continue to brew in the hot water. Coarse. Grind.
I personally use a no-name grinder that works well for coarse grinding, but before would just grind at the market or buy ground coffee. If you are looking to get the best grinds, however, look into hand powered coffee mills. A good mill is not cheap, but grinds are consistent, and you’ll have more control over the amount of beans you grind.
Lastly, the amount of beans you use is your prerogative, but a good rule of thumb is one full-bodied tablespoon per cup-o-joe (not measuring cup). It’s just me, only one cup-o-joe. Use one hefty table spoon. I’m making coffee for two. Use two tablespoons – see the pattern? I like strong coffee, and this suffices – don’t be fooled by its color – but occasionally I’m in the mood for something really heavy: some bold, rude coffee. Just a few extra beans go a long way – you’ll see why in the brewing part of this instructional.
Step #2: Water-Time
First bring the water to a boil. Pour a little bit (only a smidge) of the boiling water into the French press to heat up the glass (this is for the glass’ safety, but also makes a smoother coffee). Now wait about 45 seconds to a minute, a good break to prep the beans. Dump out the water (the smidge) in the press pot and insert the beans. By this point, the water you boiled will have come down in temperature enough to properly brew the coffee. It turns out that boiling water burns parts of the bean that give it flavor and some of the caffeine, as well. Next, pour the boiling water into the pot and onto the coffee. Try to pour only as much as you need to keep the brew strength right. Now you wait again. Some people like to stir the coffee first, but it is not necessary. During this time, leave the top off of the pot.
Step #3: Brew-O'Clock
At this time, the coffee is actually brewing in the pot. How long do I let it brew? There is no correct answer to that question, but between 3-5 minutes. I usually find 3 minutes premature, and 5 minutes sometimes kills the flavor of a particularly flavorful coffee. My go-to brew time is thus 4 minutes, and 5 minutes for light roasts. Brewing longer does not bring out more flavor, but it does make the coffee darker. If you prefer your coffee darker than so described, add a few more beans and another minute to your brew time (they are related) on your next brewing adventure. Once the brewing is over, simply place the top onto the pot and plunge the grinds to the bottom. I have had instance with inconsistent grinds that this has cause a near-explosion – my fix was to start plunging without the top on all the way.
Once the pot is pressed, pour it out into a cup or cups. If you can, it is best to pour all of the coffee out of the pot at this point. Unless you are Bear Grylls or Google Spider, this cup is probably too hot to drink right after a pour. Wait a moment; actually wait another 4 minutes. How much longer does this take?! About 4 minutes. It turns out, your coffee is resting at this point, like the resting of a good cut of meat after cooking. Imagine that during this time all the flavor is blossoming. It could be sooner than 4 minutes, so take a whiff of the steam to detect the developing flavors. The coffee’s flavor will peak for a time, depending on the roast quality and bean, then die. When it dies, you will begin to taste a lot more acid and the brighter notes of the flavor.
Sipping on a cup of well brewed, French press coffee is a well-deserved treat after the 15-minute-or-so prep time. Enjoy it to its fullest, and ruminate in its humble beginnings.
Bonus: Crash Course French Press Brew
I won’t pretend that I have the time or will to enjoy a longwinded French press every time I get sleepy. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version, the fire-round, if you will:
- Buy ground coffee.
- Put 1-2 table spoons in the press while boiling water.
- Pour in the water, and stir (less flavor, faster brew).
- Plunge after about 3 minutes, and pour.
- Sip as soon as possible - cheers!
Of course, it’s not the tastiest of methods, but it is quick and, in my opinion, wholeheartedly depicts that little old French man huddled over his grimy coffee, innovating his way into fictional folklore.